May 13th, 2012
I missed Helen Sword’s short article last month when it first appeared: “Yes, Even Professors Can Write Stylishly.” She laments the stodgy (her word) style many academics use and rejects the common claim that academic prose needs to be jargon-laden:
Unfortunately, the myth persists, especially among junior faculty still winding their anxious way up the tenure track, that the gates of academic publishing are guarded by grumpy sentries programmed to reject everything but jargon-laden, impersonal prose. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly everyone, including the editors of academic journals, would much rather read lively, well-written articles than the slow-moving sludge of the typical scholarly paper.
She encourages academics to pay attention to their audience, to use their writing to communicate concrete ideas, and to “cultivate an authoritative yet conversational voice.”
Academic history should have little difficulty achieving such goals. But I still wonder if we are facing a broader problem that can’t be solved merely by improving our style. Despite Collingwood’s claims in his autobiography about all sciences being a form of historical knowledge, history did not enjoy the rise in social authority and reputation that he predicted.